Best of both worlds

Massage therapists find career fulfilment in high-end spa practice
Jack Kohane
January 02, 2014
Rob Leduc likes to take a hands-on approach in his work. The founder of Dynamic Wellness Massage, he applies his skills as a registered massage therapist (RMT) to clinical, sports and corporate massage treatment therapies for high-powered clients, and in his spa practice he uses his knowledge to help release stress while making clients feel pampered.

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Massage therapists at St. Anne’s spa are striving to make a difference in their clients’ health. Rob Leduc (sitting in centre) finds working at a spa allows him to expand the reach of his skills.  Also in photo: (standing from L-R) Nicole Conroy, Emily Nikulka, Danae Slobodian, Natalie Sokay, Jessica Solski, Desmond Hickie, Dion Clarke, (sitting) Terily Mosey, Sarah Mcilquham and (kneeling) Lisa Ferguson.

“I don’t want to just rub people, I want to improve their health,” he says. “I’m enjoying the best of both worlds.”

In his private practice, Leduc treats burned out execs, athletes battling sports injuries, and the strains and sprains that plague everyday life. At the spa, guests look to him to reduce stress levels, increase circulation, and learn to relax and smell the roses. “I help people feel better by bringing the power of healing through human touch,” he enthuses.

The spa business is a billion-dollar industry in Canada that, according to Toronto-based hospitality and tourism consulting firm PKF, will continue to feature massage treatments as a core offering, while incorporating concepts such as “mind/body/spirit” programs into its service roster.

Practising at Ste. Anne’s Spa, one of the country’s top health spa retreats hosting about 35,000 guests each year (almost 10 per cent are male), allows Leduc to extend the reach of his skills and purpose to help with destressing people and accelerating their healing.

“I am treating people, seeing them make quick progress,” Leduc asserts. “When they get off the table, I get their immediate feedback and counsel on the best way forward.” 

Atmosphere may be part of the cure, and there are healthy doses of good vibes at Ste. Anne’s Spa, embraced as it is by the rolling countryside of Haldimand Hills an hour east of Toronto. The sprawling facility, dubbed “the country castle,” stretches over 400 scenic acres. There are over 30 spa treatments to choose from and a range of fitness programs done at the main fieldstone-clad inn (originally built in 1857 and at one time used as a summer retreat for wealthy Americans) and six guest cottages. Today, the spa’s main target demographic is women with family incomes of more than $75,000.

“We’re about rest, tranquility and improving the physical and mental well-being of our guests,” says Jim Corcoran with a smile, the inn’s genial owner. “Our RMTs (currently numbering 28 full-time, part-time and casual staff) have the skills and confidence to place their hands on another human being with a healing intent. They are the cornerstone of the Ste. Anne’s experience.” 

Exemplifying that credo is RMT Amy Kenny. She’s a veteran at Ste. Anne’s, having practised there for seven years, and a staunch advocate of spa settings as a means of helping to create well-rounded therapists. She finds this, she says, through working with other therapists.

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Veteran therapist Rob Leduc uses his knowledge to bring relief to his diverse clientele.
“I am able to confer, practise, discuss treatments and techniques and outcomes with a variety of RMTs and receive a variety of opinions and ideas for treatments,” she says. “I’m also given the opportunity to learn a variety of treatments and this makes every day fun and saves my hands and wrists from strictly massaging every day. I believe this will also extend, or prolong, my career as an RMT.”

After graduating from the massage therapy program at Sault College of Applied Arts and Technology in 2000, Kenny worked at busy chiropractic and physiotherapy clinics in the Greater Toronto Area. Now married and living in nearby Ajax, Ont., with her husband and three daughters (who range in age from eight years to 14 months), she credits Ste. Anne’s in offering her a good life/work balance.

“The team here is super,” she emphasizes. “With my growing family, my needs have changed over time. Ste. Anne’s gives me the flexibility to schedule my workdays accordingly.”   

There are other pros on Kenny’s list of spa-practice pluses, and many found at Ste. Anne’s in particular. She points out, “Work is there for me and everything is supplied – support staff to do all bookings, laundry, ordering product – all that administrative burden is taken away. I just show up for work and focus on doing a great job for every one of our guests.”

Continued training in a variety of different treatments, among them body wraps, stone massages and hydrotherapy, is another bonus Kenny enjoys.

“Here we are always encouraged to take CEU courses that are paid for by the spa,” she lauds. “We can mentor newer RMTs and younger therapists, and we’re always encouraged to contribute ideas for planning and creating new treatments as well as improving on older treatments.”

Leduc agrees that working in a spa context offers some fundamental differences, which could be seen by some therapists as advantages over a clinical practice. In a clinical setting, he notes, there are concerns: “Do you own the clinic, or rent a room in a clinic? Do you work on a split? What kind of overhead do you carry? What about advertising and marketing? Do you get referrals from the other professionals in the clinic? In the spa setting, you get an hourly rate with the opportunity for premiums and/or benefits, depending on your commitment. I believe the compensation is relative to the individual therapist’s goals.”

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St. Anne’s veteran Amy Kenny believes working alongside other RMTs in spa settings helps make you a well-rounded massage therapist.
He knows whereof he speaks. At 36, Leduc comes equipped with a diverse background that brings a wealth of experience to the massage table. Born and raised in Ontario’s north (his dad was a miner), he first attended university in Sudbury, but opted instead to complete his studies at the college level, receiving his diploma in the three-year fitness and leisure management program at Cambrian College. He earned a personal trainer and fitness consultant designation with the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology, working with dozens of college athletes looking to enhance their performance through resistance weight training and cardiovascular conditioning. He soon developed a passion for working with clients with acute sport-related injuries.

“This sparked an interest in physical therapy which inspired my decision to go back to school,” he recalls. He researched athletic therapy and physiotherapy, and was introduced to sports massage therapy, an especially good fit with his personal training background.

He later enrolled in the three-year massage therapy program at Sir Sandford Fleming College, in Peterborough, Ont., where he logged over 100 hours of volunteer services relating to sports massage, working at swim meets, marathons and various college sports, as well as offered mentoring to new massage therapy students. At his 2002 graduation, he was the recipient of the Massage Therapy Faculty Award, presented to a student who maintained high academic achievement combined with professional growth and development.

Leduc joined Ste. Anne’s a decade ago. He admits the idea of some spa treatments were strange to him at the start.

“Wrapping people in seaweed or an exfoliating body invigoration was foreign to me, something I had to get accustomed to,” he chuckles. “I was a college success story, and my transition to spa practice was a personal challenge.”

But since those first few eyebrow-raising days, he’s found the spa experience rewarding, and has enjoyed beefing up his massage skills by taking specialized courses in advanced sports massage, manual lymphatic drainage and myofascial massage.

“I enjoy working with clients to address stress, posture problems and repetitive strain injuries,” he affirms.

Acknowledging the debate within the massage therapy profession that spa therapists are frowned upon by some as glorified estheticians, Natalie Kellar, Ste. Anne’s spa director, insists the work is similar.

“The majority of our guests see an RMT as a regular part of their self-care regimen; the visit to the spa usually replaces one of their regular visits,” she explains. “Although there is no time allocated for in-depth assessment, our therapists are still able to provide a therapeutic treatment and focus on areas of concern.”

One difference is the environment. Ste. Anne’s treatment rooms are warmly appointed with soothing background music and low lighting, complemented with gourmet meals and high tea in the mid-
afternoon. For spa staff, that means working on guests already into relaxation mode. The only disadvantage, laments Kellar, “Is that our therapists aren’t able to see guests from beginning to end of a treatment plan, though returning guests can request a specific RMT.”

Spotlighting Ste. Anne’s benefits package, Kellar states that her RMTs are paid on an employee basis, earning $20-$25 per hour. Ontario Massage Therapy ( reports that most RMTs in the province can earn between $19.43 and $58.72 per hour – in addition to a $5 per hour premium on therapeutic massage treatments (covered by most insurance plans). The professional fees of up to $550 per year for its full-time RMTs are covered by the spa, as well as $300 per year towards their CEU eligible courses, and conferences and trade shows.

“There is a limit of five massage treatments per day, which helps eliminate therapist burnout,” says Kellar.

With its 22 in-house treatment rooms, as well as the capability to do treatments in the guest rooms, Ste. Anne boasts an annual business growth of about 10 per cent, most of which (70 per cent) are repeat customers.

Ste. Anne’s offers its registered massage therapists opportunities. “They can work on all different body types each day for Ste. Anne’s offers its registered massage therapists opportunities. “They can work on all different body types each day for massage and alternative treatments,” says Kellar. “My RMTs are able to focus on developing their skills and learn from each other... we take care of the rest.”

Remarks Leduc, “Many of Ste. Anne’s RMTs have extensive clinical experience and that’s why I believe our spa clients are in great hands.”

St. Anne’s offers a variety of RMT treatment options for the clients’ needs.

The Athlete’s Relief Sports Massage treatment uses a combination of muscle flushing strokes and light stretching techniques. Massage therapists work to reduce the body’s lactic acid and toxins.

The spa also offer pre-natal massage, helping to relieve the stress and tension imposed on a woman’s body by the changes that occur during pregnancy. The therapist provides a pregnancy pillow for comfort, enabling the client to lie comfortably on her stomach, regardless of the stage of her pregnancy.

The Swedish Massage treatment is offered to individual clients or to couples. This treatment uses a blend of pure plant and flower extracts combined in massage oils to massage away pain, increase joint mobility and relax specific areas of tension in the body.

Jack Kohane is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who writes for several national health-care magazines and the National Post newspaper.

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